Category Archives: Talks

Winter projects

Synopsis : Now is the time to make plans for the long winter ahead; frame building, winter projects, some light reading or an escape to somewhere warmer and with better wine?

Introduction

The good late summer September weather 1 has been replaced with the first of the equinoctial gales. Actually, more of a 30-40 mph stiff breeze with an inch or two of rain than a real gale. Nevertheless, wet and windy enough to preclude any outdoor jobs, and instead make my thoughts turn to winter projects.

The more northerly (or southerly) the latitude, the longer the winter is. Here in north west Scotland there’s virtually no practical beekeeping to be done between the start of October and early/mid April i.e. over 6 months of the year.

Some beekeepers fill these empty months by taking a busman’s holiday … disappearing to Chile or New Zealand or somewhere equally warm and pleasant, where they can talk beekeeping – or even do some beekeeping – and, coincidentally 2 enjoy some excellent wines.

Santiago bee graffiti

Santiago, Chile, bee graffiti …

Others ignore bees and beekeeping for the entire winter and think (and do) something completely different. They build model railways, or practise their ju-jitsu or – if really desperate – catch up on all the household chores that were abandoned during the bee season.

They then start the following season relatively unprepared. Almost certainly, next season will be similar to last season. They’ll make similar mistakes, run out of frames mid-season and lose more swarms than they’d like.

Rinse and repeat.

Alternatively, with a little thought, some reading, a bit of effort and some pleasant afternoons in the shed/garage/lounge, they can both plan for the season ahead and prepare some of the kit that they might need.

As Benjamin Franklin said ”By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Looking back to look forward

I’ve discussed beekeeping records previously (and should probably revisit the topic). My records in the early years were terse, patchy, illegible and of little real use, perhaps other than in the few days that separated colony inspections.

Better than nothing

Better than nothing … just.

My records now are equally terse, but up-to-date and reasonably informative. I’ve got a numbering system for my colonies and queens that means they can be tracked through the season. The records are dated (rather than ’last Friday’) so I can calculate when important events – like queen emergence or mating – are due.

They’re also legible, which makes a huge difference. I could just about read my old scrawled pencil notes a few days after an inspection, but would have had no chance 5 months later.

By which time I’d have lost the little notebook anyway.

So, at some point over the next few months – sooner rather than later – I’ll look through my records, update the ‘queen pedigree’ table 3 and summarise things for the season ahead.

In the spring I’ll update a new sheet of records with a short note on overwintering strength/success and then we’ll be ready to go.

But, in reviewing the records I’ll remind myself about the things I ran out of, the timing of swarm control (when there’s the maximum pressure on available kit) and ideas I might have noted down on how things could have been done better 4.

Reading and listening

The winter is a great time to catch up on a bit of theory. Some beekeepers do exam after exam, pouring over Yates’s Study Notes until they can recite chapters verbatim.

I’ve done enough exams in my lifetime for … a lifetime, and have no intention of doing any more.

However, I’m always happy to do a bit of reading. I’ve currently got The Native Irish Honey Bee and Joe Conti’s The Hopkins Method … (which I’ll return to shortly) by my desk. I’m also partially successfully at keeping up with some of the relevant scientific literature 5.

A larger and more enthusiastic audience than usually seen at a beekeeping talk

There are also numerous winter talks available. Some are through local associations, others are available more widely. I ‘virtually’ attended one this evening where there were questions from as far apart as Orkney and Tasmania.

Of particular relevance to Scottish beekeepers, it’s worth noting that our association membership fees are usually significantly less than south of the border (probably because your SBA membership is separate), so you can inexpensively belong to a couple of associations and benefit from their talks programmes and – if you’re lucky – Co-Op purchasing schemes 😉

My attendance at these talks is less good than it should be, largely because I give a lot of talks each winter, but I instead benefit from the Q&A sessions which can be both entertaining and informative.

OK … enough theory

Theory is all well and good, but beekeeping is a practical pastime and just because it’s dark, cold, wet and windy, doesn’t mean there isn’t practical stuff you could be doing.

Competitive beekeepers will use the time to prepare the perfect wax block or bottle of mead for their – local or national – annual honey show.

I’m not competitive, and my wax is pretty shonky but I’ve had fun making (and more fun testing) mead 😉

But there are lots of other things to do …

The known knowns

By reading your comprehensive notes you will know that you ended the season with 5 colonies, that swarming started in mid-May but was over by early July, and that you’ve got one really stellar queen you’d like to raise 2-3 nucs from.

All of which means you are going to need a minimum of 60 new frames next season. These need to be ready before swarming starts.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

How did I get to 60?

About a third of brood frames should be rotated out and replaced each season (~20). The nucleus method of swarm control uses the fewest frames, but you’re likely to have to use swarm control for all your colonies (~25). Then there’s a further 15 frames for the 3 additional nucs you want to prepare. Of course, if you’ve got lots of stored drawn comb 6 or you use double brood boxes, or Pagden’s artificial swarm method these numbers will be different.

The point is, you will need extra frames next season.

I’m ending this season with about 20 colonies and so expect to need over 200 frames next year, possibly more if queen rearing goes well. Some frames will be recycled foundationless frames but others will contain normal wired foundation.

And what about supers? 2022 was a good year for honey. If you had enough supers and super frames you’ll probably be OK in an average year.

Whether it’s average or not, it’s always easier to build the frames – well-fortified with tea and cake – in the winter, rather than in a rush as you prepare to go to the apiary.

Exactly the same type of arguments apply to any other routine piece of kit – broods, supers, crownboards, roofs, clearers. Buy or assemble and prepare them in the winter.

After Tim Toady try something new

A few weeks ago I introduced the Tim Toady concept. For just about any beekeeping activity, there are numerous ways that it can be completed. There must be dozens of different methods for swarm control or queen rearing, perhaps more.

Of course, however many methods there are, all – at least all the effective ones – are based upon the basic timings of brood development and of the viable fractions of the colony. These things don’t change.

The biology of the honey bee is effectively unvarying.

Queens take 16 days to develop, drones take 32 days (from the egg) to reach sexual maturity. A queen and the flying bees are a viable fraction, as are the nurse bees and young brood etc.

Despite being based around these invariant 7 biological facts, not all swarm control or queen rearing methods are equal. Certainly, the end results might be similar, but some methods are easier, use less equipment, need less apiary visits or whatever i.e. some methods probably suit your beekeeping better than others.

My advice about this plethora of different methods to achieve the same ends remains exactly what it was a month ago … learn one method really, really well. Understand it. Become so familiar with it that you don’t need to worry about its success 8.

And then, after a bit of winter theory, plan to try something different.

And the winter is the ideal time to build any new things you might need to try this alternative method next season.

Here are a couple of my past and current winter projects.

Morris boards

Probably 90% of my queens are produced using the Ben Harden approach. It was the method I first learnt, and remains the method I’m most confident with. I’ve found it a reliable small scale method for rearing queens.

But, as they say, ’familiarity breeds attempt’ (at something new) and I’ve always liked the elegance of the Cloake board. This is a split board with an integral queen excluder and a horizontal slide. You place it between the boxes in a strong double-brood colony. By inserting the slide, opening upper front and lower rear entrances and simultaneously closing the front lower hive entrance you render the top box temporarily queenless and enable it to get stuffed with all the returning foragers 9. The queenless upper box is now in an ideal state for starting new queen cells from added grafts.

Morris board

But most of my west coast bees don’t end up as booming double brooders … the standard Cloake board needs too many bees for my location.

Parallel Cloake boards 

Which is where the Morris board comes in. It’s effectively two parallel Cloake boards. Paired with a ‘twinstock-type’ divided upper brood box (or two cedar nuc boxes) it works in the same way as the Cloake board, but only needs sufficient bees to pack a 5-frame nuc so is better suited to my native bees.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

You can buy Morris boards … or you can easily build them. This was one of my winter projects in ’20/’21. I’ve used them for the last two years successfully and have been pleased with the results.

I don’t think I understand their use as well as the Ben Harden system … but I will. In particular, I have yet to crack the sequential use of one side, then the other to rear a succession of queens.

Portable queen cell incubator

This was my one big project last winter. Unfortunately, we had a shocker 10 of a summer on the west coast and it was rarely used. I did put a few queen cells through it successfully, but queen rearing generally was hit and miss (mainly miss) so it’s yet to prove its full worth.

Portable queen cell incubator version 2

This is version 2 of the incubator. I’m gradually compiling a list of opponents for version 3 11 that should correct a few things that could be improved – capacity, level of insulation, heat distribution – though the current incarnation is probably more than adequate.

Building – and testing, which actually took a lot more time – the queen cell incubator was a lot of fun. I discovered (and created 🙁 ) a series of problems that needed to be solved and, relatively inexpensively 12, enjoyed sorting them all out. I could work in my warm, well-lit workroom, drink gallons of tea, and dabble with 12V electrickery without endangering my life.

I’ve used it this season powered by a 12V transformer indoors, from an adapter in the car or from a battery with solar backup in the apiary.

However, to use it properly I need to rear more queens … which brings me to … 

Queen rearing without grafting

Both the Ben Harden and Cloake/Morris board methods of rearing queens use a suitably-prepared colony in which young larvae are presented. Typically 13 these larvae are grafted from a suitable donor colony.

Grafting is perceived by some as a ‘dark art’ – though perhaps not exactly malicious – involving a combination of sorcery, spells, fabulous eyesight and rock-steady hands 14.

It isn’t, but this perception certainly dissuades many from attempting queen rearing.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

I find grafting relatively easy and routinely expect 80-90% ‘take’ of the grafted larvae. My sorcery and spells are clearly OK. However, in the future, my eyesight and manual steadiness/dexterity are likely to decline as I get older 15.

I’ve also been reading some papers on how the colony selects larvae to develop into queens. Their strategy isn’t based upon what they can see and pick up with a 000 sable paintbrush … funny that.

I’m therefore going to try one of the graft-free methods of rearing queen cells, and the approach I intend to use is the Hopkins method. Hence the part-read copy of Joe Conti’s book mentioned earlier.

The Hopkins method of queen rearing

This method involves the presentation of a frame of suitably-aged eggs and larvae horizontally over a brood box packed with young bees. Importantly I mentioned both eggs and larvae as, under the emergency response colonies preferentially rear new queens from 3 day old eggs.

The resulting queen cells are cut from the frame and used to prime nucs or mini-nucs.

Even with my presbyopia and ’hands like feet’ I should be able to manage that 😉

The intention is to couple the Hopkins method with a 12-frame double-brood queenless nuc box which is subsequently split into several nucs for mating the new queens. And, if that wasn’t enough, I’m hoping I can integrate this with some swarm prevention for the donor colonies … time will tell.

All of that means I need some new kit 🙂

Before butchery photo … an eke being adapted for the Hopkins method of queen rearing

I purchased some Maisie’s poly nuc boxes, floors, feeders and ekes in the summer sales. In the winter I’ll spend some time butchering them with my (t)rusty Dremel ‘multi-tool’ to accommodate the horizontal brood or super frames (and a cell bar with grafts for good measure) before painting them a snazzy British racing green or Oxford blue 16.

More poly hive butchering

I’ve already done a little poly hive butchering this winter.

I’ve got about 20 Everynucs from Thorne’s. These are a thick-walled, well made nuc with a couple of glaring design flaws. However, I’m prepared to overlook these as, a) they’re relatively easy to fix, and b) they cost me a chunk of money and I’m loathe to spend at least the same amount again to replace them.

In addition, bees overwinter fantastically well in them.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

I’ve also got a few compatible feeders which are really designed for feeding syrup. You can add fondant, but the bees then need to follow a rather convoluted path to access it.

Everynuc feeder ...

Everynuc feeder …

I decided to modify the feeders to allow both by fitting a syrup-proof dam about half way along the feeder and drilling some 3-4 cm holes through the resulting ‘dry’ side of the feeder 17 .

Wooden syrup-proof dam and holes in an Everynuc feeder

Fondant, ideally in a transparent/translucent plastic food container 18 is inverted over the holes and the bees have direct access to it, even in the very coldest weather.

Munchity crunchity … direct access to the fondant

The Ashforth-type syrup feeder still works if needed and I no longer need 8 gallons just to top up each nuc 19. Typically my nucs won’t need feeding in midwinter, but if they do I should be able to position the fondant directly over the cluster allowing them the best chance of reaching it.

Winter weight

This is a practical project carried over from last year. I’m interested in the changing weight of the hive as the colony segues from ‘maintenance’ mode to early season brood rearing. I’ve drawn some cartoon graphs where there’s a clearly visible inflection point, with the hive weight dropping much faster once brood rearing starts.

Hive scales

I’m keen to have some real data rather than just my crummy cartoons. I already have the tools for the job, my no expense spared made hive scales. Tests last year showed that these were pretty accurate; I was about 8% shy of the actual weight (which doesn’t matter a jot, it’s the percentage change in weight that’s critical) and, more importantly, produced readings that were reproducible within a percent or two.

However, last year I was thwarted by bad weather, a lack of Gore-tex and an unexpected delay in evolving gills. I’ve now bought a sou’wester and, in the name of science, am preparing to brave the elements every week or so to weigh half a dozen hives.

And in between all that lot I’ll be building frames 🙂 20


Note

The other winter project already part-completed is moving this site to a new server. Frankly this has been a bit of a palaver, but I think it’s now sorted.

If you had problems connecting over the last few evenings, apologies. If things still seem odd, slow, broken or unresponsive drop me a note in the comments or by email. Of course, if you can’t connect at all you’ll never read this postscript 🙁 .

The changes I’ve made will enable some new things to be incorporated over the next few months, once I’ve got a bit of spare time and have built all of those frames 😉

Scores on the doors

Conveniently, this final post of the year will be published on the final day of the year. This is an appropriate time to look back over the what’s happened here on The Apiarist … a sort of behind the scenes view of the posts that were popular, the posts that were unloved and the creative writing process that converts a title and a topic on a Tuesday to a perfectly honed essay garbled jumble of words on a Friday.

Precisely because the final post of the year appears on the last day of the year, any stats I mention below will exclude this post. Should 15,000 people read this post late on New Year’s Eve 1 then this page would also make it into the ‘Top of the Posts’ lists.

Hives in the snow

And, in between some of the numbers and comments below there’s likely to be a smattering of beekeeping advice or unanswered questions, just to keep you on your toes.

So … without further ado.

Read all about it

Page views, visitor numbers, those registered for email notifications etc. are all higher this year than last, by ~30%.

Going up … page views and visitor numbers graph since time began

New posts appear on Friday afternoon around 3 pm 2 and tend to get the most views on Friday evening and over the weekend, tailing off through the remainder of the week.

Some posts are then rarely read again. Others go from strength to strength, attracting readers in successive months and years. This longevity depends upon a combination of subject matter and ‘fit’ with current search engine algorithms.

Regular as clockwork

Inevitably, the popular posts are often those on ‘how to’ subjects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering this is a beekeeping site, the top posts of the year were all on either swarm control or Varroa management.

Top of the posts

These were the most read posts of the year. Tellingly, only the one in bold first appeared this year:

  1. Queen cells … don’t panic! – a title designed to attract the beginner who, having discovered their first queen cells, is now busy panicking.
  2. The nucleus method – my favoured method of swarm control. Almost idiot proof, this explains why it’s my favoured method of swarm control.
  3. Demaree swarm control – a little bit of history and another swarm control method. What’s not to like?
  4. When to treat – a post that first appeared almost 5 years ago. Most of the relevant information is now included in other posts, or summarised in the more recent – and therefore recommended – Rational Varroa control.
  5. Vertical splits and making increase – another ageing post that, by combining swarm control, making increase, requeening and running out of equipment, has something for everyone. I think this could do with updating and deconvoluting.
  6. Swarm control and elusive queens – a useful method for those who struggle to find queens. More important still is that, for beginners, if they understand WHY it works then they’re well on their way to becoming a beekeeper.
  7. Honey pricing – higher, higher! There’s loads of cheap ‘honey’ flooding the market. You are not competing with it. You have a premium product. Do NOT sell your honey cheaply.
  8. Swarm prevention – something that should have been read before items 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 in this list … but possibly wasn’t considering it was read fewer times 🙁 3
  9. Pagden’s artificial swarm – the most popular method used by beekeeping associations to completely confuse beginners (see the nucleus method above for an alternative).
  10. Oxalic acid (Api Bioxal) preparation – which is currently the most read post, proving conclusively to me that many more beekeepers need to read Rational Varroa control because many colonies will now be rearing brood (see the photo below).

Together, these 10 posts counted for about 20% of the total traffic this year. The remainder were smeared over the other 448 posts that have appeared since early 2013. 

Biscuit-coloured crumbs on the Varroa tray = brood rearing. 23rd December 2021, Ardnamurchan, Scotland

If you’ve got some spare time, show some love for Seasonal changes which only received a single visitor this year. The late September 2016 post contains a nice picture of an orchid and a bottle of honey beer.

Search and ye shall find

The majority of visitors arrive either in response to the weekly emails announcing new posts 4 or from search engine searches. The latter are nominally a valuable resource, so are not disclosed to those of us who actually write the stuff in the first place (unless we pay Google).

However, the 0.5% of searches that come from other search engines turn up a few interesting terms (my selection from hundreds, and in no particular order):

  • cbpv winter – not usually associated together as this is a virus (chronic bee paralysis virus) that usually damages very strong, crowded hives in the middle of the season.
  • diy Kenyan beehive – not something I’ve ever discussed 5 or know anything about 6.
  • how much income from beekeeping – just a bit less than not enough, but fractionally more than SFA.
  • pointers to successful queen introduction (2006) bickerstaffes honey – a really rather specific search. I wonder whether this site was any help?
  • bee hive in old norse – see ‘diy Kenyan beehives’ above, the same sentiments apply.
  • Как сделать станок для натягивания проволоки на рамки для ульев чертежи – that’s easy … you need one of these.
  • maldives beekeeper – I have one photo on the site from the Maldives which I suspect resulted in this ‘hit’. I hope the reader wasn’t disappointed 7.
  • does a virus make bees angry – actually not such a daft question. There’s a Japanese strain of Deformed wing virus called Kakugo which is supposed to cause aggression. Kakugo means readiness or preparedness.

And, of crsuoe, there wree hrdudens of saehrces wtih snlpileg errors. Mabye smoe brepkeeees olny serach for initofrmaon atfer benig stnug rltedepaey on tiehr fenirgs? 8

Some of the spelling errors were so gross that the resulting word was barely recognisable.

There were also about 8 different spellings for ‘apiarist’ … not bad for an 8 letter word 😉

Prolixity

Fifty two posts have appeared in 2021, each averaging 2,675 words. This is an increase of about 8% over the 2020 figures 9. In total, excluding the ~1200 comments, that’s about 139,000 words.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace … more words, more characters, less bees

For comparison, this is a bit under 25% the length of War and Peace.

Phew!

Talking the talk

As well as writing too much (it has been said that) I talk too much. During 2021 I’ve given 25 talks to beekeeping associations stretching from Cornwall to Inverness 10. Audiences have ranged from about 15 to 350 and I’m very grateful to all the BKA’s who hosted me and coordinated the Q&A sessions.

Particular thanks to the associations that managed to send me the Zoom link for my presentation before the talk was supposed to start 😉 .

Although the talks were all ‘virtual’ it was good to see some old friends and to make new contacts.

Spam, spam, spam

Of the ~1200 comments I mentioned above, many are from me. I try to respond to every comment, irrespective of whether they are corrections (for which many thanks), additional insights (thanks again) or further questions 11.

Running a website, even a relatively low traffic one such as this, means you receive a lot of spam. ‘A lot’ means usually between 200 and 800 comments or emails a day. To avoid the comments section getting tainted with adverts for fake sunglasses or dodgy prescription drugs 12 I manually ‘approve’ every comment that appears.

Spam

This isn’t as onerous as it sounds. I run spam filters that trap the vast majority of the unwanted spam.

This filtering is not 100% accurate … if you previously posted a comment and it never appeared then it may have fallen foul of these filters. Next time avoid mentioning that you were wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses when you inspected the colony 😉

It’s a rather sad indictment of the internet that I sometimes receive the same amount of spam in one day as I receive in valid comments in one year 🙁

You’ve got mail

The comments and questions – whether to posts or talks – are often very interesting. After all, I may have delivered the same talk three times in the last month, but the questions will always be different. I’ve touched on this previously in Questions & Answers.

Some questions are direct, relevant and on-topic. These are usually easy to understand and answer, though they may not be easy to answer correctly.

But there two other types of question:

  • Rambling, incoherent and vague … almost always lacking some essential information, like location. These often start with a detailed description of the last three colony inspections and end with something about Nosema or polycarbonate crownboards. There may not even be a question mark …
  • Direct – verging on blunt – and totally off-topic. It’s not unusual to prepare 2,500 carefully crafted 13 words on rational Varroa control to then receive the question ”What is the recipe for thick syrup?”.

In addition to comments/questions to posts and talks I receive a lot of email. If you emailed me this year and I failed to answer promptly then it’s probably because there were 50 other unanswered emails I’d yet to wade through.

With the volume becoming unmanageable I’ve started ignoring the very terse emails requesting a quick response (because the sender is ‘busy’ and wants the answer before they leave for the apiary/office/school run/anger management class) like “What is the recipe for thick syrup”.

The few who send adverts for their quack solutions to Varroa (often vaguely disguised as informed questions) or abuse – you’d be surprised, I was – are both ignored and blocked.

Life is too short …

New topics and old chestnuts

Beekeeping is a fantastically diverse activity 14. From the single hive owner to huge commercial operations, from the hive-monitoring techno-geeks to the leave-alone organic types, from honey to venom … there really is something for everyone.

It’s therefore no surprise that there is never a shortage of topics to cover. This is particularly true when you also include some of the wonderful 15 science of honey bees.

Web of Science publications on “honey bees” since 1997

I’ve covered some beekeeping topics exhaustively and get little satisfaction from re-writing the same thing differently 16. However, these are the topics that often attract the most readers – presumably many of whom are new beekeepers.

I’m not too fussed about the reader numbers, but if I’m going to go to the trouble of writing something I do want it to be read 17.

I’m currently wondering about how to achieve a balance between what might be considered the ‘basics’ and some of the more advanced – and to me (after a lot of beekeeping) much more interesting – topics.

And I’m always happy to consider new topics if you think I’ve missed something 18.

The writing process

I usually accumulate ideas on long car journeys, while walking in the hills, out on the loch or during interminable meetings. They might start as little more than a title and a reference, or a sentence of text.

Seeking inspiration for new articles for The Apiarist

I rarely have anything actually written by the weekend before the post appears, though I will usually have decided on the topic.

This post is being written on a Tuesday, but late – often very late – on a Thursday is more typical.

Two to four hours is usually sufficient for most posts, though additional time is needed if there are custom figures or graphs.

It’s very useful to then leave the draft for a few hours after ‘finishing’ it.

I usually abandon the keyboard by 2 am on Friday and look again first thing the following morning. Typos are caught, my awful punctuation is largely fixed and some of the more garbled sentences are rewritten in English 19.

And then I press ‘Submit’.

Flat white, cappuccino, ristretto, latte macchiato and affogato

And all of those activities – the thinking, the writing and the proof-reading – are fuelled by a delicious and fulfilling combination of strong coffee and pizza.

I’d therefore like to again thank the supporters who have ‘Bought Me a Coffee’ during 2021. In particular I’d like to acknowledge the repeat supporters. In addition to facilitating my nocturnal writing marathons, this support has also enabled moving the site to a more powerful (and properly backed up and appreciably more expensive) server.

Thank you

The future

I’m looking forward to the year ahead for many reasons. I expect 20 to have a lot more time for my bees and beekeeping. In the meantime, I’ll probably write about some of my immediate plans in the next week or two.

Winter-flowering gorse, December 2021

The size and complexity of this website – hundreds of posts and thousands of images – is starting to make it both difficult and time-consuming to maintain. It’s a dynamic site, the pages being generated on the fly when your web browser requests them. There’s a significant performance cost to retaining these dynamic features, and the underlying software is bloated and a target for hackers.

I’m therefore considering alternatives that make my life a little easier and your browsing experience a little faster. One way to achieve this is to use what is termed a static site. Anyone who has looked up details of my online talks (which has ~16 images and ~2500 words, so broadly comparable to a Friday post) will have used one of these. This technology is becoming increasingly common for blogs. I still need to resolve how to retain the comments/discussion features.

I’m also keen to explore some more expansive topics.

Even ~2500 (or more) words is insufficient to do some subjects justice; the impact of honey bees/beekeeping on solitary bees and other pollinators, neonicotinoids, fake honey, the prospects for Varroa-resistant bees, more advanced methods of queen rearing etc.

Real honey … not the product of unspecified EU and non-EU countries

How do I tackle these?

Should I write less and not explore the subject fully?

Write in instalments?

Or just not bother?

What do you think?

And while you ponder that and some of the other points raised above I’m going to enjoy the last few hours of 2021 and close by wishing all readers of, and contributors to, this site the Very Best for 2022.

May your supers be heavy, your queens fecund, your bees well-tempered and your swarms … from someone else 😉

Happy New Year


Notes

The phrase [the] Scores on the doors originated from the panel show The Generation Game hosted by Larry Grayson between 1978 and 1982. However, it was subsequently appropriated to indicate the public display of food hygiene ratings.

If you arrived here from @Twitter then you might be wondering what omphaloskepsis is. It means navel-gazing as an aid to meditation. Readers with a classical education will recognise its derivation from the Ancient Greek for navel and contemplation. Scrabble players will be disappointed it doesn’t contain more high scoring consonants.

Frequently asked questions

The 2020/21 winter has been very busy with online talks to beekeeping associations. I’m averaging about five a month, with only the fortnight over Christmas and New Year being a bit quieter. 

When chatting to the organisers of these talks it’s clear that they are getting increasingly successful 1. Audience numbers are encouragingly high as people become more familiar with online presentations.

Beekeepers know they can lounge around in their pyjamas drinking wine, chat with their friends before and after the talk 2, and listen to a beekeeping presentation … a sort of lockdown multitasking.

Some of you that spend hours each day on Zoom will know exactly what I’m talking about 😉

I still lament the absence of homemade cakes, but I suspect the online format is here to stay. At least for some associations, or at least some of the winter programme each year. 

Talking to myself

There’s little point in doing science unless you tell others about it and, as as a scientist, I have presented at invited seminars and conferences for my entire career. 

Some readers will be familiar with public speaking in one form or another. They’ll be familiar with the frisson of excitement that precedes stepping up to the podium in a large auditorium. 

Assuming there’s a large audience filling the large auditorium of course 😉

Those with little experience of speaking might wish the audience was a bit smaller, or a lot smaller … or not there at all.

But the reality is that the audience is a really important part of a presentation. At least, they are once the speaker has sufficient confidence to calm down, to stop worrying they’ll say something stupid, and to ‘read’ the audience. 

An attentive beekeeping audience

By observing the audience the speaker can determine whether they’re still interested and attentive. Not just in the topic (after all, they’re sitting there rather than disappearing to the coffee shop), but in particular parts of the presentation. 

Are you going too fast?

Have you lost their attention?

Was that fancy animated slide you spent 20 minutes on a dismal failure?

Did that last witty aside work … or did it crash and burn? 3

Almost none of which can be determined when delivering a Zoom-type online presentation 🙁

You can ‘see’ the audience.

Or parts of it.

Postage stamp-sized headshots, with poor lighting, distracting backgrounds 4 and enough pixelation to make nuanced judgements about boredom or even species sometimes tricky.

Is that a Labradoodle in the audience … or just another lockdown haircut?

Has the internet frozen … or has everyone simply fallen asleep?

It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.

Which makes the question and answer sessions even more important than usual.

Mixed abilities

My talks usually include a 5 minute intermission. Talking for an hour uninterrupted is actually quite tiring 5 and it’s good to make a cup of tea and gather my thoughts for ’round two’.

It also allows the audience to raise questions about subjects mentioned in the first half that left them confused.

Fortunately these ‘half time’ questions tend to be reassuringly limited in number 6.

Have a break, have a Kit Kat

However, at the end of the talk there is usually a much more extensive Q&A session. This often covers both the topic of the talk and other beekeeping issues. 

A typical audience contains beekeepers with a wide range of beekeeping experience. Enthusiastic beginners 7 jostle for screen space with ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt’ types who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

Inevitably this means the talk might miss critical explanations for beginners and omit some of the nuanced details appreciated by the more experienced. As the poet John Lydgate said:

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time 8.

Think about this simple statement:

Varroa feed on the haemolymph of developing pupae.”

The beginner might not know what haemolymph is … or, possibly, even what Varroa is.

The intermediate beekeeper might be left wondering whether the mite also feeds on nurse bees when ‘crowdsurfing’ around the colony during the phoretic stage of the life cycle.

And the experienced beekeeper is questioning whether I know anything about the subject at all as I’ve not mentioned fat bodies and their apparently critical role in mite nourishment.

So I encourage questions … to help please a few more of the people 😉

You’re on mute!

In my experience these are best submitted via the ‘chat’ function. The host – an officer of the BKA or a technically-savvy member press ganged into hosting the talk – can then read them out to me.

Or I can … if I can find my glasses.

One or two beekeeping associations have a Zoom ‘add in’ that allows the audience to ‘upvote’ written questions, so that the most popular appear at the top of the list 9. This works really well and helps ‘please more of the people more of the time’.

The alternative, of asking the audience member to unmute their mic and ask the question is somewhat less satisfactory. It’s not unusual to watch someone wordlessly ‘mouthing’ the question while the host (or I) try and explain how to turn the microphone on.

Finally, it’s worth emphasising that the Q&A session is – as far as I’m concerned – one of the most helpful and enjoyable parts of the evening.

Enjoyable, because I’m directly answering a question that was presumably asked because someone wanted or needed to know the answer 10

Helpful, because over time these will drive the evolution of the talk so that it better explains things for more of the audience.

Anyway – that was a longer introduction than I intended – what sort of questions have been asked frequently this winter (and the talks they usually appeared in).

What do you define as a strong colony? (Preparing for winter)

Strong colonies overwinter better than weak colonies. They contain more bees. This means that the natural attrition rate of bees during the winter shouldn’t reduce the colony size so much that it struggles to thermoregulate the cluster

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

I also think large winter clusters retain better ‘contact’ with their stores, so reducing the chances of overwinter isolation starvation.

Strong colonies are also likely to be healthy colonies. Since the major cause of overwintering colony losses is Varroa and the viruses it transmits, a strong healthy colony should overwinter better than a weak unhealthy colony. 

Colony age structure from August to December.

However, you cannot necessarily judge the strength of a colony in June/July as an indicator of colony strength in the late autumn and winter.

This is because the entire population of bees has turned over during that period. 

A hive bulging with bees in summer might look severely depleted by November if the mite levels have not been controlled in the intervening period.

The phrase ‘a strong colony’ is also relative … and influenced by the strain of bees. Native black bees rarely need more than a single brood box. Compare them to a prolific carniolan strain and they’re likely to look ‘weak’, but if they’re filling the single brood box then they’re doing just fine.

When should I do X? (Rational Varroa control and others)

When usually means ‘what date?’

X can be anything … adding Apivar strips, uniting colonies, adding supers, dribbling oxalic acid.

This is one of the least satisfactory questions to answer but the most important beekeeping lesson to learn.

A calendar is essentially irrelevant in beekeeping.

Due to geographic/climatic differences and variation in the weather from year to year, there’s almost nothing that can be planned using a calendar.

Only three things matter, the:

  1. state of the colony
  2. local environment – an early spring, a strong nectar flow, late season forage etc.
  3. development cycle of queens, workers and drones

By judging the first of these, with knowledge of the second and a good appreciation of the third, you can usually work out whether treatments are needed, colonies united or supers added etc.

This isn’t easy, but it’s well worth investing time and effort in.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

The last of these three things is particularly important during swarm control and when trying to judge whether (or when) a colony will be broodless or not. The development cycle of bees is effectively invariant 11, so understanding this allows you to make all sorts of judgements about when to do things. 

For example, knowing the numbers of days a developing worker is an egg, larva and pupa allows you to determine whether the colony is building up (more eggs being laid than pupae emerging) or winding down for autumn (or due to lack of forage or a failing queen).

Likewise, understanding queen cell development means you know the day she will emerge, from which you can predict (with a little bit of weather-awareness) when she will mate and start laying.

How frequently should you monitor Varroa? (Rational Varroa control)

This question regularly occurs after discussion of problematically high Varroa loads, particularly when considering whether midseason mite treatment is needed. 

Do you need to formally count the mite dropped between every visit to the apiary?

Absolutely not.

If you are the sort that does then be aware it’s taking valuable time away from your trainspotting 😉 12

The phoretic mite drop is no more than a guide to the Varroa load in the hive. 

Think about the things that could influence it:

  • A colony trapped in the hive by bad weather has probably got more time to groom, so resulting in an increased mite drop.
  • An expanding colony has excess late stage larvae so reducing the time mites spend living phoretically.
  • A shrinking colony will have fewer young bees, so forcing mites to parasitise older workers. Some of these will lost ‘in the field’ and more may be lost through grooming.
  • Strong colonies could have a much lower percentage infestation, but a higher mite drop than an infested weak colony. You need to act on the latter but perhaps not the former.
  • And a multitude of other things that really deserve a more complete post …

So don’t bother counting Varroa every week … or even every month.

Does what it says on the tin.

I think checking a couple of times a season – towards the end of spring and in mid/late summer – should be sufficient. You can do this by inserting a Varroa tray for a week, by uncapping drone brood and looking for mites, or by doing an alcohol wash on a cupful of workers (but these methods aren’t comparable with each other as they measure different things with different efficiencies). 

But you must also look for the damaging effects of Varroa and viruses at every inspection.

If there are significant numbers of bees with deformed wings – characteristic of high levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) – then intervention will probably be needed. 

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

And if there are increasing numbers of afflicted bees since your last regular inspection it’s almost certain that intervention will be needed sooner rather than later.

I should add that I also count mite drop during treatment. This helps me understand the overall mite load in the colony. By reference to the late summer count I can be sure that the treatment worked. 

What do you mean by a quarantine apiary? (Bait hives for profit and pleasure)

This question has popped up a few times when I discuss moving an occupied bait hive and checking the health of the colony. 

A swarm that moves into a bait hive brings lots of things with it …

Up to 40% by weight is honey which is very welcome as they will use it to draw new comb. If there’s good forage available as well it’s unlikely the swarm will need additional feeding.

However, the swarm also brings with it ~35% of the mites that were present in the colony that swarmed. These are less welcome.

I always treat swarms with oxalic acid to give them the best possible start in their new home.

Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

More worrisome is the potential presence of either American or European foul broods. Both can be spread with swarms. The last things you want is to introduce these brood diseases into your main apiary.

For this reason it is important to isolate swarms of unknown provenance. The logical way to do this is to re-site the occupied bait hive to a quarantine apiary some distance away from other bees. Leave it there for 1-2 brood cycles and observe the health and quality of the bees.

What is ‘some distance?’

Ideally further than bees routinely forage, drift or rob. Realistically this is unlikely to be achievable in many parts of the country. However, even a few hundred yards away is better than sharing the same hive stand. 

If you keep bees in areas where foul broods are prevalent then I would argue that this type of precautionary measure is essential … or that the risk of collecting swarms is too great.

And how do you know if foul broods are prevalent in your area?

Register with the National Bee Unit’s Beebase. If there is an outbreak near your apiary a bee inspector will contact you.

Remember also that the presence of foul broods in an area may mean that the movement of colonies is prohibited.

‘Asking for a friend’ type questions

These are great.

These are the sort of questions that all beekeepers are likely to need to ask at sometime in their beekeeping ‘career’.

Typically they take the form of two parts:

  1. a description of a gross beekeeping error
  2. an attempt to make it clear that the error was by someone (anyone) other than the person asking the question 😉

Here are a couple of more or less typical ones 13.

  • My friend (who isn’t here tonight) forgot to remove the queen excluder and three full supers from their colony in August. Should I, oops, she remove them now?
  • Here’s an an entirely hypothetical scenario … what would you recommend treating a colony with in March if the autumn and midwinter mite treatments were overlooked?
  • Should my friend remove the Apiguard trays he a) added in November, or b) placed in his colonies before taking them to the heather?
  • I’d been advised by an expert beekeeper to squish every queen cell a few days after discovering my colony had swarmed in June. It’s now late September … how much longer should I wait for the colony to be queenright?

These are very good questions because they illustrate the sorts of mistakes that many beginners, and some more experienced beekeepers, make. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making mistakes. The problem comes if you don’t learn from them.

I’ve made some cataclysmically stupid beekeeping errors. 

I still do … though fewer now than a decade ago, largely because I’ve managed to learn from some of them.

Partly I learned from thinking things through and partly from asking someone else … “A friend has asked me why his colony died. Was it the piezoelectric vibrations from the mite ‘zapper’ bought from eBay or was the hive he bought not suitable?


 

Eating my words

I periodically look at the access statistics of this site. It gives me an idea of what’s popular, which subjects might be worth revisiting and which posts have sunk without trace into bottomless void of the internet.

Daily page views are only 50% what they were in June. Maybe it’s the chaos/excitement/disappointment (delete as appropriate) of the US election or the deja vu and crushing inevitably of Lockdown 2.0, but beekeeping appears to be getting less popular.

Or perhaps it just reflects the fact that it’s the end of the season and everyone is frantically catching up on all the tasks they postponed from earlier in the year when they were in the apiary 1.

That’s not to say that there is no beekeeping to do at this time of the year.

Mite corpses

I usually use Apivar for Varroa control. The active ingredient, amitraz, remains effective. I like Apivar as it works even at the lower temperatures we have in Scotland. In addition, the queen continues laying – in contrast to Apiguard for example – at precisely the time the colony needs to be rearing lots of long lived winter bees.

Double brood colony the day before Apivar treatment added

I insert the Apivar strips as soon as the summer honey supers are removed and at the same time as the autumn fondant blocks are added. This year the strips went in on the 28th of August. The mite drop is then monitored over subsequent weeks.

Or should be.

My continued absence on the remote west coast meant that the counts of mite corpses were a bit hit and miss this year 2.

Mite drops – colonies in the bee shed, autumn 2020

The counts were sufficient to determine the relative mite infestation levels and observe how they dropped over time. Unfortunately, they weren’t detailed or frequent enough to see real differences on a day-by-day basis.

I’d hoped to get this to discuss the influence of the reducing laying rate of the queen on apparent mite infestation levels, but that will have to wait until another year.

Mite drop data

The four colonies plotted on the graph above are in our bee shed. They are all within 4 metres of each other, and have been for at least a year. None have had any Varroa management this season 3 other than the Apivar added in late August.

Hives in the bee shed

One of the colonies (#1) has had sealed brood periodically removed for experiments. Hive #2 and #4 are on a double brood box, the other two are on singles. All the hives are Swienty or Abelo (poly) Nationals.

The first thing to notice is that there are very significant differences in cumulative mite drop over the first 40 days after starting treatment. Rather than graph these numbers, here’s a simple list by hive number:

  1. 73
  2. 697
  3. 597
  4. 120

Infestation levels can differ significantly, even in colonies within the same apiary. Or on the same hive stand. Monitoring a single hive as a sentinel for a complete apiary could be very misleading.

Hive #1 counts are probably lower because the colony is a bit weaker than the others (though that’s relatively speaking – many beekeepers would consider it quite strong). However, the drop is not significantly different from #4 which is a very strong colony. 

Throughout the treatment period shown (we stopped counting in October) the average mite drop per day from #1 and #4 never exceeded 5 which is satisfying low. There’s little else to say about these two colonies 4.

The high mite drop from colonies #2 and #3 is about as high as I’ve ever seen in my own hives in Scotland. 

Mite reductions

When I lived in the Midlands I saw higher counts. There’s a much higher density of apiaries and beekeepers there than in Fife, and it was more difficult to manage colonies to routinely have low mite numbers. I’ve always assumed this was due to robbing and drifting – isolation definitely helps – but my Varroa management was also a bit different (in both method and timing).

Hive #3 trace shows a typical reduction week on week over the treatment period. High at the start and negligible after about 40 days.

Colony #2 has a strange increase in mite drop in the third week of treatment. I don’t really understand this. One possibility is that the colony was robbing a nearby heavily-infested colony 5 during this period, with the foragers bringing back phoretic mites as well as the stores they’d robbed out.

In both these “high mite” colonies the mite drop after ~40 days was averaging 5 per day or less, which should be OK. They will be monitored again in mid/late November and after treatment with Api-Bioxal during a broodless period

For reference, colony #1 was broodless when checked on the 13th of October, a few days after the last count on the graph above. 

Apivar strip removal

The approved duration of treatment with Apivar is 6-10 weeks. I usually remove strips after 6 weeks if the mite drop is low and steady. There’s nothing to be gained from overtreating.

However, since I was aware of the high mite drop from colonies #2 and #3 I left the strips in for a bit longer, removing them on the 30th of October (i.e. 9 weeks). 

Used and removed Apivar strips

If beekeepers are to avoid Varroa acquiring resistance to Apivar it is very important that the miticide is used properly. Removing the strips within 10 weeks very important. 

I attended an online Q&A session with Luis Molero (Scotland’s lead Bee Inspector) organised by the SBA. In this he described finding hives on heather moors which still contained Apivar strips. These had presumably been left in the hive after a mid-season treatment, though whether by accident or design is unclear. 

This is poor practice on two counts; continued presence of low levels of the miticide would contribute to selecting amitraz-resistant mites and there is the additional risk of tainting the honey with miticide. 

Reading and writing

I spend a lot of my week stuck in the office reading and writing. Grants, manuscripts, strategy documents, complaints, the BBKA Q&A page, menus (well, OK, not menus … and relatively few complaints) etc.

As a consequence I rarely spend much time reading for pleasure. Months go by without me opening The Scottish Beekeeper, the BBKA Newsletter or ABJ. However, as the beekeeping season draws to a close I have a bit more free time and so periodically binge-read some of these to catch up.

The view from the office … another reason I’m behind on my reading

Usually, by the time I read something, it’s out-of-sync with the season. I find myself reading about queen rearing strategies in late October, or overwintering queens in early February. Much of this is promptly forgotten … unless I make notes and write about it here.

You could consider The Apiarist as a sort of aide memoire for this forgetful beekeeper 😉

However, a few weeks ago I read a letter to the editor in The Scottish Beekeeper on the perils of feeding fondant. I’ll paraphrase here both to avoid copyright issues and because I’ve lost (!) the particular issue the letter appeared in.

The gist of the letter was that the correspondent had lost several colonies when fondant had gone sloppy and dripped down between the frames, killing the colony in the middle of the winter. 

I sent a letter to the editor saying that I’d only seen this when the colony had perished through disease. Healthy colonies, clustering under unfinished fondant blocks, tended to keep nibbling away and so were not swamped by a tsunami of cold, syrupy fondant.

Or words to that effect.

Don’t speak write too soon

I’ve got a couple of Varroa-free colonies on the west coast of Scotland. Both were started from nucs in mid/late summer, built up well and collected a reasonable amount of nectar from the heather. I left this for them, nadiring the partially-filled super and – as I usually do – adding a block of fondant on a queen excluder.

Both colonies are in Abelo poly hives with open mesh floors and a 5cm block of Kingspan insulation under the polystyrene roof. This is typically how my colonies would overwinter 6.

Green thoughts in a green shade

Neither colony used much more than 6 kg of fondant as both brood boxes had ample stores. I therefore intended to remove the unused fondant ‘at some point’. 

For a future post here I wanted a photograph of the typical ‘stripes’ of brood cappings visible on a Varroa tray. Since these west coast colonies brood later in the season than my Fife bees I inserted a tray below one colony a couple of weeks ago.

‘At some point’ turned out to be today (5th of November).

To my surprise. the underside of the fondant block in the hive with the Varroa tray was distinctly soft and sloppy.

Sloppy fondant stuck to the top bars – this hive had the Varroa tray inserted.

In contrast, the other colony was much as I’d expected. No sticky fondant.

No Varroa tray, no sloppy fondant stuck to the top bars.

Clearly, under certain conditions, a fondant block can soften sufficiently to start to dribble down between the frames. It’s worth emphasising the colonies are in the same type of hive (floor, boxes and roof), in the same apiary and are of equivalent strength. The only difference is the presence of a well-fitting Varroa tray in one of them.

Eat my words

I think the explanation for the difference from a) my previous experience, and b) between the two hives pictured above, is straightforward.

It rains a lot on the west coast. In the last fortnight we’ve had 280 mm of rain, with today being the first mainly dry day 7. This was why I’d chosen today to remove the fondant.

With that much rain the humidity levels are also quite high. With the Varroa tray in place I suspect that that humidity levels within the hive were higher still. Under these conditions I suggest that the fondant absorbs water faster than the bees can consume/store it.

These conditions are quite specific and are only likely to be an issue for beekeepers (or bees!) living in areas of high and regular rainfall. The original letter to The Scottish Beekeeper was from a beekeeper in Dumfries and Galloway.

Fife and the Midlands – the only areas I have many years experience of beekeeping in – both have less than 750 mm of rainfall per annum. I’ve had hives with both fondant and Varroa trays in place for weeks without any problems.

In my letter to The Scottish Beekeeper I described the hive insulation but failed to mention the open mesh floor. D’oh!

It’s now time to quickly write a follow up to explain these recent observations.

This example rather neatly demonstrates the influence of local conditions … and the importance of trying to interpret what you see when opening a hive. 

Since I’ve now written about it (my aide memoire for a forgetful beekeeper 😉 ) I’ll hopefully also remember this lesson next winter.

Speaking

It’s turning out to be a busy winter for talks to beekeeping associations.

These are increasingly popular as association members realise the benefits they offer.

You don’t have to negotiate icy roads in the dark to sit for an hour in a draughty church hall. 

No longer do you have to squint at an image projected onto a creamy-yellow wall with an irritating picture hook in the middle of every slide.

You can sit in the comfort of your own lounge (or bath), sipping shiraz and occasionally staring at a nice picture on a high resolution screen.

At least, that’s what I’m doing … as well as talking a bit 😉

I still lament the lack of homemade cakes. 

However, I have taught myself to make pizza during lockdown.

Pizza

If I’m mumbling a bit when I’m talking you’ll know why 😉


 

The new normal

For many, beekeeping associations provide the bookends that bracket the practical beekeeping season. In meetings during the dark, wet, cold winter months we can at least discuss bees, reminisce about the season just gone or plan for the season ahead.

Usually with tea and biscuits 🙂

Or in the more civilised associations (and a quick plug here for the Fortingall & District BKA) with fantastic homemade cakes 😉

Elderflower lemon drizzle cake

Beekeeping associations, through the training and social events that they organise and the contacts that they enable, provide an important support framework for beekeepers, both new and old.

Training new beekeepers is one important function associations provide, but more experienced beekeepers also benefit from co-operative purchasing schemes for foundation or fondant 1 and – of course – from the winter seminar programmes.

Double whammy

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a double whammy to many associations.

Training events, necessitating flagrant breaches of social distancing during hands-on practical beekeeping demonstrations, are a problem. Many associations delivered the theoretical coursework before lockdown was imposed, but were subsequently unable to provide the practical component of the training for beginners.

It’s difficult to spot the queen from 50 centimetres sometimes, let alone 2 metres.

Returning a marked and clipped queen – tricky to do at arm’s length

The independent first inspections for 2020 beginners are likely to have been a pretty tough challenge for many. Congratulations to those who got through them and the rest of the season with little support.

I’m hearing that some associations have cancelled or postponed all training events for the ’20/’21 winter season.

The imposition of lockdown 2 in March probably had little impact on the ’19/’20 winter seminar programmes, but they’re likely to have a significant impact going forwards.

I give quite a few talks on science and practical beekeeping in most winters. Audiences and venues vary, depending on the association. I’ve talked in drafty church halls to groups of 15, or swanky conference centres to ten times that number.

There is always a good turnout by new beekeepers, or even by those who have yet to start keeping bees.

Not your typical beekeeping audience … or church hall

However, there is generally a gender imbalance, with more men than women attending. And – and I’m afraid there’s no gentler way to write this – there’s an age imbalance as well, with the enthusiastic young ‘uns outnumbered by older, and in some cases old, beekeepers.

Statistics

This age and gender imbalance inevitably make the ’20/’21 winter seminar programmes an endangered species, at least in the format we’ve grown used to over past seasons.

If you look at the statistics for serious Covid-19 cases it is clear that there is a strong bias towards elderly males. There are other biases as well … underlying medical complications and ethnicity also have a major influence, though whether the latter is socio-economic, genetic or due to the presence of comorbidities remains unclear.

All of which means that spending an hour in a drafty church hall listening to a talk on bait hives is probably unwise … not least because the social distancing needed precludes any chance to huddle together for warmth when the one bar electric heater blows a fuse.

Zoom …

In the brave new, socially distanced, world we’re currently inhabiting, drafty church halls and excellent homemade cakes are now just a distant memory. 

Instead we have Teams talks, Demio demonstrations and WebEx webinars. 

And Zoom, but I can’t think of a suitable alliteration to go with Zoom 🙁

For many office-based workers, lockdown resulted in the substitution of boardroom meetings with spare bedroom virtual meetings. 

Hastily repurposed guest bedrooms have become home offices. The combination of IKEA furniture, a reasonably recent laptop and a fast internet connection has enabled ‘business as usual’.

Almost.

All of my meetings – with administrators, colleagues, my research team and students – have been online since late March (and in certain cases since early March).

Academics are used to collaborating globally and so were already familiar with Zoom, Teams or Skype for conference calls and job interviews. These have just continued 3, and been extended to now include all the in-person meetings that used to happen.

One or two colleagues have embraced this expanded use of the technology to have their own ‘green screens’. This allows their head and upper torso to be projected in front of a selected image – of a tropical beach, their favourite golf course or local boozer.

The Maldives … the perfect backdrop for a dull committee meeting

The really professional ones even change out of their pyjamas before calls … 😉

But many beekeepers will be largely unfamiliar with the technology and the advantages it offers … and disadvantages it imposes.

Online beekeeping talks

I’ve both attended and delivered online beekeeping talks. Not a huge number, but enough to have a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t. In addition, I’ve taken part – as audience or presenter – in hundreds of non-beekeeping online events.

For readers who have yet to take part here’s a general guide of what to expect.

The speaker and topic are advertised in advance and those interested in listening/watching register to attend. The talk is hosted by the beekeeping association who provide a ‘chairperson’ or ‘master of ceremonies’. This person has the unenviable task of dealing with the speaker, the technology and the audience. 

And two of these three might do something incomprehensibly stupid … and the internet can break.

On the evening of the talk 4 you login via a website (using a username/password provided on registration) and launch the necessary software to take part in the event.

Eventbrite beekeeping talk

Sometimes this can be through the web browser, but – more usually – it involves downloading and installing software onto your computer. Which might be an issue for some people wanting to take part. Do this in advance of the start time of the talk, not in the last 2 minutes before kickoff.

After an introduction by the chairperson, control of the graphics is usually handed to the speaker who delivers the talk. To avoid awkward ‘noises off’ 5 the chairperson usually mutes all other microphones

Why unenviable?

I previously described the chairpersons role as unenviable.

While the speaker blathers away the chair is probably:

  • dealing with email enquiries about how to launch the software
  • justifying why there isn’t a video of the speaker actually speaking (it’s turned off to save bandwidth), and
  • telling someone that they are the only person unable to hear the presenter. Therefore, it must be their audio output settings that are wrong.

And if that isn’t enough, the chair will be collecting and collating questions during and after the talk, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly.

Finally, it’s not unusual for the chair to also ensure that the talk is recorded so that those who couldn’t download the software or hear the presenter can attempt to listen to it in the future.

That’s a lot to deal with.

Questions and answers

Good talks generate questions.

As a speaker, there’s nothing worse than a talk being met by an echoing wall of silence.

Hello? Is there anybody [out] there? Just nod if you can hear me 6.

Some are points of clarification, others are after elaboration or explanation of a contrary view.

Some questions are nothing whatsoever to do with the talk 😉

They might not even be about beekeeping.

All require an answer of some kind.

And this is where the technology gets in the way of communication. 

Questions from the floor, in which the audience member switches on their microphone, clearly enunciates the question, and turns off the mike returning ‘control’ to the host and speaker cause delays.

Often significant delays. However, even short breaks interrupt good communication – think back to the lag on transatlantic satellite phone calls. 

The speaker asks the question clearly … but omits to turn on the mike.

Or they fail to the turn off the mike, so the entire audience hears the follow up “and I hope he answers quickly as Strictly’s on in a few minutes”.

For a couple of questions this is just about acceptable. For twenty or thirty it is not.

So, the beleaguered chair takes written questions from the audience, collates them, removes duplicates … and then asks the presenter on behalf of the audience.

I refer you back to the word ‘unenviable’. If you take part, cut the chair some slack …

Disadvantages of online talks

Unfortunately a subset of beekeepers who would have attended a gathering on the second Tuesday of the month in the church hall will never attend an online beekeeping talk.

For a start, they might not even own a computer. 

They might – and I have considerable sympathy for this view – mainly attend talks for the craic, the opportunity to catch up with friends and the chance of some homemade lemon drizzle cake.

All of those are good reasons to attend a talk in person … and in the case of lemon drizzle cake I’d say a compelling reason to attend 😉

As a regular speaker at associations I’d add here that the craic and the homemade cake are the parts of the evening I enjoy the most. After all, I’ve heard the talk before. I might even have heard the questions before 😉

None of these more social things are achievable online. Everyone listens in their own little bubble, isolated from the shared experience.

If they can’t bake it’s going to be a long evening 🙁

For others, the technology will continue to be a problem. They can see the pictures but can’t hear the words. Or vice versa. Or worse …

No Zoom for you …

The fact that 190 others don’t have the same problems just makes it a more frustrating and unrewarding experience. Being live, there’s no real chance of resolving these ‘local’ problems without delaying the talk and irritating the rest of the audience.

Over time the numbers unable to handle the technology will reduce.

In some cases it’ll be because they have learned to master it – either by perseverance, or by the beekeeping association providing some sort of training sessions.

In other cases it’ll be because they simply gave up 🙁

Like those who don’t have a computer in the first place, this means online talks are serving a different audience and some association members are likely to be excluded by the switch to online talks.

Advantages of online talks

But it’s not all bad news. I can see some benefits for both the speaker and audience from online presentations.

Associations can invite speakers from anywhere.

They don’t have to be from the same county.

Or the same country.

This broadens the topics that can be covered and provides the opportunity to discover different beekeeping practices from other areas (always remembering that this might simply confuse beginners).

There are some good speakers out there – just look through past programmes for the BBKA, SBA or WBKA Annual Conventions or the National Honey Show.

Associations can ‘share’ speakers by running joint events or inviting neighbouring association members to register.

As a speaker, this means that audiences tend to be larger. Bigger audiences are almost always better 7. Since everyone is logging on, rather than driving across the county to the venue, there’s less chance a spot of bad weather will put people off.

This is a huge advantage for the speaker as well … I’ve regularly talked, answered questions, drunk tea, chatted, eaten lemon drizzle cake, drunk more tea, said my goodbyes and then driven for three hours to get home 8.

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

I’ve also had to cancel talks at relatively short notice due to ‘adverse driving conditions’ – which in Scotland means a bit more than a dusting of snow. 

None of that happens in our brave new digital world.

Is this the new normal?

For the foreseeable future I think it is. The national lockdown is being replaced by local restrictions where virus transmission is increasing. However, school and university students have yet to return and this will likely lead to increased transmission in some areas (in Scotland, we’re already seeing this, though transmission is usually ascribed to “unregulated house parties” rather than within the school 9 ).

A vaccine remains some way off. It’ll be even longer until we have vaccinated a large enough proportion of the population to interrupt transmission.

Or to know how long immunity lasts.

All of which means that indoor social events, like talks about bait hives or swarm control, are likely to be undesirable, unattractive or simply not allowed.

What can we do to improve things?

Delivering a talk online is a very much less rewarding experience than doing so in person.

There’s no ability to properly engage with the audience – no banter, no eye contact, no jokey comments.

You can’t tell whether the old boy in the back row has switched off or just nodded off.

Or perhaps he’s simply cheesed off because he disagrees with everything I’m saying.

You don’t necessarily know who is in the audience – you might know overall numbers, but not whether the local bee inspector or beefarmer is logged on. Knowledge of the audience can influence the way you pitch a talk.

It’s an oddly sterile undertaking. This makes judging the pacing and content of the talk very much more difficult. With a live audience it’s usually possible to tell whether they’re ‘keeping up’ or ‘tuning out’. You can’t do this online.

If the audience is present you can ask questions and get immediate answers … anyone who has heard me talk will know I ask about drifting and ‘how many of your bees are your bees?’. There are ways of doing this online, but it requires familiarity with more software (or additional features of the current software).

Starting materials ...

Practical demonstrations and online presentations – tricky

In the meantime …

  1. Associations can help their members embrace the technology by providing limited training where it is needed. 
  2. Think creatively about topics that can be covered within the limitations of the technology. For example, some of the talks I’ve been to in person have had a practical component. I’ve attended excellent candle dipping and skep making workshops 10. Likewise, I talk about DIY for beekeeping which involves handing round examples of my hastily cobbled together beautifully crafted floors or roofs. These sorts of things might be achievable entirely online, perhaps with more videos. However, preparing these will certainly require a lot more work by the presenter to be effective.
  3. Provide feedback to speakers – what worked and what didn’t work?

Welcome to the new normal … I hope to “see” you online sometime 🙂


Notes

The new normal means “a previously atypical or unfamiliar situation, behaviour, etc., which has become standard, usual, or expected” (OED). Although now associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s usage can be traced back over 200 years. The big increase in usage was in reference to the 2008 financial crisis, and – historically – it is often used in reference to economic events. 

The new normal – Google ngram results